Was this the first day of new world order, one with England on top?

You do not rush into a theory like this. That would be too impudent, too risky, given all that has happened in the last 18 years of Ashes history.

But then sometimes there is evidence on a cricket field, as there is in a boxing ring or at a football pitch or an athletics track, that is just too compelling to ignore. In it, you see - just maybe - a moment of fate, a flashpoint of destiny.

It was hard not to see the dismissal of Ricky Ponting in that light when a delivery from Simon Jones flew off the splice of his bat and was gathered in almost nonchalantly by Ian Bell, one of the new wave of English cricket, at backward point. It was the first ball after tea and perhaps something a little more. Maybe it was the first ball of the new world order of cricket... the first ball of the new, English cricket empire.

Outrageous, premature jingoism? That is the worry with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath still plainly able to draw on the last of their genius and with batsmen like Ponting, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and the young, but currently stricken hope, Michael Clarke yet to touch anything like the kind of form and inspiration that has marked their extraordinary careers.

There are, we have to remember, two Tests to go when we get to the end of this one which, if the first two are anything like reliable precedents, still has a minimum of half a dozen twists and turns left to go. But the evidence is more than fleeting and the weight of our suspicions has accumulated significantly in the last few weeks. Irresistibly, they came roaring into the open when Ponting once again crumbled at a crucial moment of this ultimately charged Ashes summer.

His latest failure with the bat - he was shot out by Andrew Flintoff when the pressure rolled into its first major crescendo at Edgbaston in the second, lost Test - would have been demoralising enough for his team, and his own leadership, had it come in isolation. But of course it didn't. It was part of a pattern, a relentless tattoo of disappointment and exposed nerve and judgement.

When he fell again at a critical moment, Australia were teetering at 73 for 2, a first dawning crisis in the pursuit of England's first innings of 444, and it was to get so much worse for them so quickly. But it was in the fall of Ponting that all those suspicions that we might be at the end of an era came rushing to a head. Inevitably, perhaps, because for Ponting this was so much more than a difficult day at the office. It was maybe the implosion of his life's work.

No one, certainly, at either end of the cricket world had ever chased so hard, so single-mindedly, the captaincy of his nation's team. This is true despite the fact of Ponting's wild youth, when he liked to drink and to bet, particularly bet, and was never too troubled by the title of "larrikin" which the Aussies reserve for some of their bolder spirits. He saw soon enough that there were greater goals than a thick head at the bar and a bad day at the betting counter. He declared his ambition, married a lawyer and elected himself into the highest company, most strikingly becoming one of just three Australians to hit four or more double centuries. The others are Greg Chappell and the late Sir Don Bradman. Ponting came here in the spring with the superior Test batting average of 56.50, but it has been the most dangerous of summers.

He wanted to step into the footprints of his great predecessors, Allan Border and Steve Waugh. Border built the foundations of the Australian empire and Waugh developed it with a relentless insistence on absolute commitment to the cause. Waugh had certain advantages, great players in the prime of their lives and a confidence in his own decisions that came with a run of rarely broken success. For Ponting, such seamless glory is beginning to look like a worn-out fantasy. Not only has he been outbatted here, and hugely so, by England's Michael Vaughan, he has also been outcaptained.

Vaughan has led his team with vision and a hard edge of opportunism and he deserves the greatest credit. However, even at this high point of an already distinguished career, he is no doubt enough of an old pro to agree with the point made by one of his predecesors, Mike Atherton, back in the wilderness years of the Nineties. When Atherton surrendered the captaincy in Antigua after an ordeal of shot and shell at the hands of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, he said: "One of the tricks of being a good captain is having a good team." Here last night the message could hardly have been more thrilling: Vaughan may just have more than a good team. He may have one young enough, vibrant enough to touch greatness.

There were other implications in the golden dusk of English cricket as most hope of Australian resistance was harassed and then put down. Langer, Hayden, Martyn, Simon Katich, a hero of the Australian victory in the first Test at Lord's, the one that had seemed to condemn England to another spell of subjection, and Gilchrist all massaged Australian pain with the possibility of another astonishing revival.

England were not to be diverted from what they clearly saw as their historic course, however. Vaughan switched the point of attack; he maintained his faith in Ashley Giles, whose response was a ball of impressive, almost Warne-like creativity to dismiss Martyn, and Andrew Flintoff and Jones bowled with often biting intensity.

No doubt it was too soon to write all of this in the sky, but then there was no law against the sacrilegious thought, the one that just would not go away, the one that said that the Australian empire might just be over.